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Thoughts on the Hitchhiker's Film and Other Things

Now that the Passover holiday is ended, I can finally get back to a regular schedule. I fell out of the writing habit for a while there, which was bad, but today I returned to the novel and managed 1500 or so words. Sometime this month I have to write a 6,000-8,000 word story for an anthology, but I've already worked out the plot and characters, so I'm not expecting it to be too much of a problem.

As I noted last Friday, gnomi and I went to see "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" just before the yom tov. I've already seen many bloggers post their reviews on the Internet, but on the assumption that someone out there is actually interested in my opinion, here's my non-spoiler review laced with personal perspective. (In fact, be warned -- there's a lot more of personal perspective here than there is review...)

(clears throat)

I have been a fan of Hitchhiker's since I read the first book when it came out in 1979, when I was nine years old. You read that right. I even managed to read it before it was published, because my father brought home a set of bound galleys from work. Dad was a copy editor at the New York Daily News, and frequently review copies came in that no one else wanted. Whenever that happened, Dad would bring the books home for us to read. Someone in my Mom's house, that book is packed away in a box, even though I bought it again in hardcover and paperback, and in many editions. (I'm expanding here on what I said back on December 2, 2004.)

Anyway, I read the book, and for whatever reason, I was hooked. Maybe it was because I was already a science fiction fan, maybe the humor appealed to me, but for whatever reason, I couldn't wait for more. I read each book as it came out, and when PBS broadcast the 1981 BBC TV series, I was there. When Infocom released the text adventure, I was also there.

All this time, I knew there had been a radio program, but I had never heard it. Then, in college, saxikath gave me a copy of the radio show on cassette, and my roommate _mozo_ gave me the book of the radio scripts. It was a delight to hear the same actors playing the characters they had played on the TV show; although I knew that they had done the radio shows first, to me it was the other way around.

Then, as the new books came out, I bought them as well. I even got to meet Douglas Adams when he was touring, and had him sign my copy of "Mostly Harmless," the last book in the series. I was devastated when I heard he had died in 2001.

And all that finally leads me to consider the film.

gnomi and I went to see it, and we found it entertaining enough and enjoyable. But in some ways, it was lacking. And I don't just mean this from the perspective of a fanboy who gets upset when the movie version leaves out his favorite part. I like to think that I'm looking at it from a larger perspective, that of story structure.

You see, whenever a movie is made from a story that first appeared in another medium, decisions have to be made regarding what ought to be kept and what can be jettisoned. There's no way everything from a novel can be put into a movie. What the screenwriter and director have to do is pick and choose, selecting those elements that are vital to the story. William Goldman refers to this as the spine of the story, and I've heard that term used by others as well. In essence, if the scene or the incident doesn't move the plot forward, it's probably going to have to be eliminated. (A recent example was the elimination of Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings movies.)

And the problem with Hitchhiker's is that it doesn't have a specific story line or story spine. Given the number of versions that have existed, most of what we think of as "Hitchhiker's" are incidents and amusing bits, and not a tightly plotted story. So when the creators decided to make a movie of the book, they also had to decide what story they would tell. Because movies have to appeal to a much larger and much broader audience than books do -- it's simple economics. But how do you make a consistent, well-plotted story out of something like Hitchhiker's?

Another way to examine this problem is to consider Orson Scott Card's MICE concept. In his books on writing, Card says that there are four different types of stories: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event stories. Actually, any story can have aspects of those four types, but often one or two aspects dominate. Card views the Lord of the Rings as mostly a Milieu story, as Tolkien wanted to spend the tale exploring this beautiful world of Middle Earth he had created. (It's also an Event story, as the times are out of joint, but really, Tom Bombadil and the Ents belong in a Milieu story, and not an Event one.)

You can probably see where I'm going with this. For my money, Hitchhiker's is mostly a Milieu story. I mean, who really cares if there was a secret plot behind the destruction of the Earth? (Even though that's an element of both the books and the radio show.) To me, that's not the point of Hitchhiker's. The point is to get Arthur Dent into the galaxy, where he can have all sorts of bizarre adventures and meet all sorts of quirky characters in circumstances which comment back on what life is like here on Earth.

(Aside: Remember how the other versions of Hitchhiker's pointed out that we were so amazingly primitive that we still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea? From our current perspective, that does seem primitive...)

The problem that I see is that the story line such as it is does not lend itself well to a film treatment. Despite the production values, the BBC TV series holds together better as a story, as does the radio show. That's because there's more time to play around with the incidents.

So I don't fault the screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick. In some ways, I think he did as good a job as could possibly be done. But it does mean that Hitchhiker's is the sort of story that can't properly be appreciated as a film -- in my humble opinion, of course -- although it can still be enjoyed.

In short: although I can't be highly enthusiastic about the film (as much as I wish I were), I do recommend it. If you like Hitchhiker's, you'd regret missing the film.

I do have some final good news, though. A while back, shsilver pointed out to me that BBC Radio had just broadcast a third radio series for Hitchhiker's. Well, starting this week, on Tuesday, May 3, they're broadcasting the fourth one, to be followed by the fifth (and presumably, final) one. And for those of us who don't live in the UK, they'll be broadcasting the same radio shows for the entire week after the initial broadcast -- on the web. Check it out at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/. (And if anyone out there can figure out how I can download their mp3s into my computer so I can have my own copies to listen to after they stop offering it -- well, I would never think of violating copyright law like that if the shows were commercially available in the States, but until that time...)


mostly harmless

So what you're saying is, "the movie is mostly harmless."

Sorry, couldn't resist....


Re: mostly harmless

You're right -- it's mostly harmless. :-)
For the record, I understand that Hitchhiker's did, at one point, exist as a stage play. It has been boiled down to the 2-hour vicinity in the past. Although I never saw the stage play, so I can't attest to how well that adaptation worked.

While I agree that it works much better as a longer piece, I'm not entirely sure I agree that the movie's purely a Milieu story. There's another story in there that's not really as obvious as the Milieu story, IMO. It's a Character story about Arthur Dent learning to let go. That's what stops him from pursuing happiness in the beginning, and that's the focus of the last scene with Slartibartfast and the question he asks Arthur, IMO. The Milieu story changes Arthur, teaches him that he can be the kind of person he didn't seem to think he was in the beginning.

Or, I could just be talking out of an orifice that isn't my mouth on this one. Literary criticism was never really my forte, I'm afraid. :)
Literary criticism has never been my forte either, but I find that the more I write the more analytical I become about the fiction I enjoy (in all its forms).

I think you have an excellent point about the movie being a Character story about Arthur, which is where they seem to have found the spine of the story. After all (spoiler warning!!!), the movie begins with Arthur losing his home planet, but by the end of the movie he's willing to let go and take the risks that come with exploring the galaxy in a spaceship with an infinite improbability drive.

For me, however, the problem is that Hitchhiker's has always been a Milieu sort of story, and this particular story line feels a bit forced to me. I'm not at all convinced it's the story line that Adams himself would have gone with had he been the sole writer of the screenplay.
deathboy says that he'll have mp3s of the radio series here.

I loved the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Since I hadn't read the book in a very long time, I wasn't upset at what it left out. I suspect that if I'd remembered the book better, I would have been dismayed, but it was a fun movie.
I wasn't dismayed by the movie, but I wish I had liked it better.

And thank you thank you thank you for the link to the fellow doing mp3s of the radio series! Will he be making them available? Perhaps we ought to take this discussion to email... :-)
Composing email to you now... :-)
My understanding is that there are now plans to release the discs of the third radio series over here.
Keep me posted. I want to own the series in a proper manner....

(And won't that make them eligible for the Nebula? I think it will...)

(And won't the fourth and fifth be eligible for the Hugo next year? Do we nominate by episode, or the whole series in long form, or what?)

December 2016

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